Advertising and marketing have come a long way in the 21st century. The tools companies have at their disposal are far more sophisticated and subtle than most people realize. With powerful analytics, devious number-swapping, and simple psychological tricks, marketers are better able to influence your shopping decisions than ever before.
If you’ve ever bought something that you didn’t really need or want, chances are it was a marketing trick that drove you to make that purchase.
Have you ever wondered why stores mark products as $2.99 rather than simply $3.00, even though we all round up? Even when we’re consciously aware that the actual price is closer to $3 than $2, our brains see the smaller number and associate it with being less expensive. Snap judgments like these drive many of our purchasing decisions.
Another key psychological trick that marketers love to use is creating a sense of urgency. Some call this the fear of missing out (FOMO). There are a million ways that they can do this, but one of the most popular is the phasing out of discounts.
Essentially, they will first market a product as being 30% off. On the following day, they increase the price to only 20% off. On the next day, it’s only 10% off. People will fear missing the sale and buy the item, even though they weren’t willing to buy it when it was less expensive. The fear of missing out on the discount drove the sale even though the discount itself was less.
Marketers have many other ways of creating urgency, all to drive emotion-based purchases rather than reason-based ones. Phrases like “limited stock” or “offer ending soon” are the most blatant examples, but there are some more crafty ones.
Online stores will often tell you that “400 people have this item in their cart” or they’ll limit how long you can have an item in your cart, “due to demand.” In reality, these numbers are almost always false and they have plenty of stock. The sense of urgency makes you more likely to buy the item.
A large number of marketing tricks rely on associations our brains naturally create. For example, a company may market a car as “low-maintenance.” Of course, this is an advertising phrase that doesn’t actually mean much, but it has links to “smallness.”
In turn, we associate small things as being less expensive, because a lower price is a smaller number than a large one. By constantly using phrases we associate with being small, advertisers trick our brains into thinking of products as less expensive, even when the numbers don't back this up.
The brain is a weird, tricky organ and marketers have gotten very good at manipulating its peculiarities. The last number of a price can sway how we feel about the price as a whole. In general, consumers prefer odd numbers over even ones.
This is another reason why $4.99 feels more appealing than $5.00. To double down on the perception of savings, businesses may use a slightly lower number like $4.97.
Also known as decoy pricing, marketers love to use the price of one product to make the price of another seem like a better deal. Movie theaters are particularly good at this, though nearly all businesses use it. If a small popcorn is $3, a medium popcorn is $7, and a large is $7.50, the large automatically feels like the best deal.
The medium’s only reason for existing is to drive sales to the large, making the business a greater amount of profit off of perceived value.
Few people feel comfortable dropping large sums of money on items, even if they have the financial ability to do so. Installment plans utilize many marketing ploys, but the most obvious is that the numbers are smaller. Our brains will naturally feel better about six payments of $225 over a single payment of $1200, even if the single payment would be lower.
When you account for hidden costs like interest, installment plans become even more tricky.
Playing with percentages and discounts is an old staple in a marketer’s bag of tricks. If a seller wants you to feel like you’re getting a bargain, they’ll use larger numbers over small ones. A product is typically $50 but is currently on sale for $40. That’s only a $10 difference, so marketers will instead mark the item as 20% off.
While technically correct, they’re only using that form so that it feels like a bigger discount than it actually is.
As humans, we naturally prefer phrases that flow off the tongue and have fewer syllables. Even if you never say a price out loud, your brain will view price tags with fewer syllables as being less expensive. This is because, again, we associate smallness with lower costs, so a small word with fewer syllables simply feels less expensive, regardless of the actual price.
Marketers realize this and will purposely choose higher prices with fewer syllables to trick you.
In the west, we tend to separate large values from smaller ones with a comma. This makes it a breeze to recognize a number. After all, 100000000 is far harder to parse than 100,000,000. Marketers will use this to their advantage and remove the comma entirely because we associate the comma with a larger number.
Rather than using $1,200, they’ll market a product at $1200, and it will seem less expensive.
Do you ever wonder why stores make those massive sale signs showing the original price in bold font with a massive red slash through it? It’s due to visual contrast, one of the main forces in influencing shopping behaviors.
By creating a stark difference in appearance between the two prices, the savings feel greater. Putting the higher cost in a bolder font and brighter color leads to more sales.
Marketers want you to feel like you’re getting a bargain and that their stores are responsible for those savings. The goal is to create associations between their brand and low costs, quality, and trustworthiness.
A good example of this is using price tags that say “Retail Price: $19.99, Our Price: $9.99.” These price tags make you feel like the store is giving you a special sale that only it can offer. In reality, you could probably get that item at any other store for a similar price.
Restaurants love to use a trick called “arbitrary coherence.” This is essentially the reverse of decoy pricing. By including a product that is far more expensive than the others on a menu, the prices of the other items seem more reasonable. You may not be willing to spend $40 on a lobster, but you might be more likely to spend $30 on crab legs after seeing the lobster.
This is one of the oldest tricks in the book. Buy one, get one free is a classic psychological tool that gives you the sense that you’re getting double the value. In reality, marketers have already shifted the cost of the second object into the price of the first, meaning you just bought two of something without any savings.
This trick has fallen out of favor but still pops up in certain marketing circles. To make a costly item seem affordable, marketers will break it down into daily expenditures. They will usually follow this up with a phrase like, “That’s less the cost of a cup of coffee.”
Breaking a larger number into smaller ones and comparing it to something inexpensive and ordinary makes consumers more likely to spend money.
Who doesn’t turn to the reviews before buying a product? After all, you need to know if the item is reliable. Marketers know that you do this and are way ahead of you. Entire corporations exist solely to create thousands of fake reviews providing glowing praise of their product.
Beyond this, the existence of social media has opened the doors to reviews that feel more personal. If an influencer we’ve followed for a while says a product is good, we naturally give that review more weight even if we know it’s a sponsored post.
According to Visual Capitalist, nostalgia causes people to value money less while valuing goods more. During periods of dread or uncertain futures, people often wish to return to easier times. We often view our past as being better or easier than it actually was.
From game consoles to polaroid cameras, nostalgia drives us to spend more money to recapture the joy of those periods.
People want to feel like their purchases will be worth it in the long run. Marketers will often downplay the cost of something by talking about how much you’ll enjoy it and how long you’ll have it. This strategy is particularly prevalent in the sales of game consoles, TVs, computers, and phones.
Most people don’t like spending money and hate counting up expenditures. Marketers have taken advantage of this by making the payment process seem like more of a hassle than it is. Then, they will have you link a card or bank account for “convenience.”
Ride-sharing apps are a primary example of this. You already know you will be getting future rides, so you have no issue linking your card. Even if a taxi ride is cheaper, the perceived ease of the ride-share app makes it seem preferable.
The longer you are in a store, the more opportunities the store has to sell you something. Thanks to decades of analytics, marketers know exactly how people tend to move through a store and in what order they will buy products.
Notice how refrigerated goods are usually in the back of the store. Because most people buy them last, you have to walk through the entire store again after you’re “finished” shopping.